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Review: Susan Cofer sublimely explores form at High Museum, turns lighthearted at Terminus

Susan Cofer: "Fall: Decomposing" 1993 colored pencil on paper,  8 x 6 ½ in. Courtesy of the artist

Susan Cofer’s drawings reward the eye with inviting subtleties of color and texture. They merit the careful contemplation and close observation suggested by the double entendre of “Draw Near,” the title of her first career survey, at the High Museum of Art through January 27.

Susan Cofer: "Fall: Decomposing" 1993 colored pencil on paper, 8 x 6 ½ in. Courtesy of the artist

Even though the sheer abundance of works on view — 82, as well as a handful of sculptures and sketches — can overwhelm the nuances of the individual pieces, the exhibition is a fascinating exploration of the subtle shift in the Atlanta artist’s style over the years toward more defined forms, as well as her longstanding obsession with nature as metaphor.

Cofer’s earliest works reveal an interest in natural forms that will evolve over time into more abstract shapes. A piece of driftwood is the subject of several works from the 1970s. “Untitled (Red Driftwood Form),” from 1976, a study in red pencil, details the grain of the weathered wood in soft, fluid strokes. In “Tree Wound,” from the same year, the artist pushes the texture further with colored pencil marks that are fur-like in density and softness. Portions of the paper are gently flaked out like bark itself, revealing the depth and sculptural potential of the seemingly flat surface. The dramatic yet organic shape of the driftwood is also echoed by a stunning untitled 1977 sculpture made with a bolt of handmade paper standing on its end. The paper’s surface looks like leather, grooved and lined yet infinitely pliable.

Like the varied usage and symbolism of grey felt in the contemporaneous work of Joseph Beuys, paper is a charged material for Cofer, whether used as sculpture, as a base for drawings or even combined to create subtle three-dimensional surfaces. A malleable material with surprising longevity despite its seeming fragility, paper can withstand manipulation yet has an indelible memory. Every mark and line is permanent; even an erased pencil mark leaves a permanent scar on the surface.

There’s something Zen-like in Cofer’s approach to paper and her embrace of the inherent qualities of the medium. The regularity of her mark-making is also strikingly meditative, as if each stroke of the pencil were a syllable of a sutra. As such, the works have a soothing effect, beckoning the viewer closer with the soft textures created by Cofer’s lines.

 

Susan Cofer: "Levavi Oculos" 2009, colored pencil on paper, 10 x 12 in. Courtesy of the artist

Nature, Cofer’s primary subject matter, is as vital to her oeuvre as the paper she uses. Her work in the 1980s suggests the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe’s nature paintings. The colors in “Landscape, Ibiza” (1983), for instance, seem a softer, muted version of O’Keeffe’s palette. The parallel is clearest, however, in the Freudian implications of Cofer’s imagery. Grooves and knots in wood give way to female imagery; sprouting seeds become a forceful eruption of life. The lake in the “To Be Alone Series” is nestled within rolling hills like a knot in a tree in Cofer’s earlier works; however, this incarnation of the shape also resembles an orifice of the female body. An exploration of female, male and fetal imagery will continue throughout the artist’s later work.

In the late ’80s, Cofer moves towards darker and more dramatic color as well as an exploration of spiritual themes. A series of sketches inspired by her travels in the Middle East repeats four images in varying degrees of abstraction: an orb or eye, a fruit with a pit or core, a curved snake, and a tear or water droplet. The studious repetition of these forms and the emphasis on their visual similarities hint at potent symbolism; the content, however, gets lost in the increasing abstraction and repetition of these shapes, distracting from the fact that they are meant to reference the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. The religious overtones of works such as “The Assumption” (1986), a rippling swirl of leaf-like forms, and “Approaching the Eternal” (1992), a darker composition in which a nebulous tear in the sky gives way to a bluish orb, are overwhelmed by the sexual imagery.

Cofer's "Approaching the Eternal" (1992)

The emphasis on erotic and fetal forms in Cofer’s work becomes more pronounced in the ’90’s and beyond. Her subject matter becomes increasingly flesh-like and tubular, as in “Conversation With a Vessel” (1994) and “Revolutions” (1998-99). In this period her hand also becomes bolder, allowing for greater density of colored pencil, subtler transitions in hue and more strongly defined shapes. This more mature mark-making is realized to stunning effect in landscapes such as “Horizontal and Vertical” (2010), which retain the delicate sensibility of her early drawings.

In some cases, however, the emphasis on sexual forms is overwrought, especially in works that deviate from her delicate treatment of natural imagery. “Untitled (Began as Knees),” from 2000-01, displays the artist’s skill in creating full-bodied shapes and making moist-looking textures out of colored pencil, which tends toward the bone-dry. These moist bodily forms, however, are almost grotesquely bulbous; they’re technically excellent but lack the contemplative nature of the earlier works. 

Draw Near” provides glancing encounters with the artist’s experimentation. “Inferno” (1996), a coursing system of intestinal tubes rendered in blood red, is a dramatic deviation in palette. As such, it throws off the rest of the exhibition, raising the question of its inclusion and its place in Cofer’s oeuvre.

The exhibition, curated by Michael Rooks, the High’s Wieland Family curator of modern and contemporary art, does not always serve Cofer’s art well. The curatorial emphasis on bodily-nature imagery and its Freudian connotations overwhelms more nuanced interpretations of the work, such as its deeper spiritual and symbolic qualities. The sheer repetition of similar imagery discourages viewers from taking up the invitation to “draw near” and truly enjoy the contemplative experience on offer.

A concurrent exhibition offers a very different aspect of Cofer’s work. “Susan Cofer’s People,” at the Gallery Walk at Terminus through November 15, is a lighthearted foil to the sublime headiness of “Draw Near.” The exhibition comprises papier mâché portraits of acquaintances and art notables such as critic Jerry Cullum and art consultant Marianne Lambert. Sometimes the portraits are set within dioramas, such as that of Cullum, who stands in an art gallery. Others depict the subjects engaged in action: Lambert wields a tube of glue and some brightly colored cords, her eyes gazing upward full of intention.

Cofer’s self-portrait, a bust on a pedestal with two columns, depicts the artist in as contemplative and resolute a fashion as “Draw Near” implies her to be. Her eyes look into the distance with an expression both enlightened and searching. One column is covered with old newspaper clippings advertising a Richard Prince auction and reviewing Cofer’s shows, the other with the colored pencil lines that are her trademark. Her face is dappled with color, much like her pencil renderings, a testament to the consistent exploration of form through drawing that has seeped into her being and made the body of her work so impressive.

Conversations With Contemporary Artists: Susan Cofer.” The artist will discuss her drawings with curator Michael Rooks on Thursday, November 15, at 7 p.m.

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